I’m a psychologist and every day I get to do work I love! I specialize in social skills groups for teens and adults who consider themselves autistic, aspie (Asperger’s), neurodiverse, or on the autism spectrum. Many people I work with are in college, are working professionals, or are feeling a bit lost in navigating the social complexities of adulthood.
Starting with my time at the UC Davis MIND Institute, I have spent years refining my social skills groups for adults and older teens. I like to refer to them as turbo-charged social skills groups.
As the Director and Founder of Open Doors Therapy, I have developed programs for teens and adults on the autism spectrum that uniquely couples together social skills training and peer consultation.
I’d like to share more about our specialized groups and what makes them uniquely beneficial for people on the autism spectrum. Our group sessions are usually 1.5 hours long. The first half of the session is focused on psychoeducation and social skills training. The second half of the session incorporates the peer consultation model.
Psychoeducation & Social Skills Training
We provide psychoeducation on topics relevant to people on the spectrum, including how to: find friends and develop closeness in a friendship, understand your own and others’ emotions, regulate info-dumping (or oversharing about your special interest), manage social anxiety, advocate for your needs, understand and appreciate your unique identity, and leverage your strengths.
We do not use a lecture format. First, because it’s boring! Second, because it robs people of the opportunity to really connect with each other through discussion of the topic. We provide relevant educational content, and a supportive and safe environment in which autistic group members feel comfortable sharing about their own life experiences that are related to the topic. This provides an opportunity for neurodiverse group members to learn from each other. Group members with autism also bond more deeply through the process of being vulnerable and sharing their personal stories, and being heard and accepted by supportive peers.
As I mentioned above, the second half of the session incorporates the peer consultation model. What do I mean by Peer Consultation? Peer consultation is a process whereby a group member (“sharer”) volunteers to share about a challenge they are facing in their social life, then the other group members explore this problem through open-ended questions, and lastly the group members provide empathy, validation, and supportive feedback.
Our peer consultation model contains 3 phases: (1) Sharing, (2) Exploration, (3) Supportive Feedback.
(1) Sharing Phase
The “sharer” is given 2-5 minutes to provide a brief description of the situation. Example topics include sharing about how they have had trouble making friends, have had misunderstandings at work due to missing social cues, or have had difficulty reading the emotions of their partner leading to marital conflict.
The group listens during this phase, and may take notes to remember key elements and may even right down questions they want to explore in the next phase. During this phase, group members are increasing their ability to attend to the thoughts and feelings the “sharer” is expressing.
(2) Exploration Phase
This phase is usually about 15-20 minutes and consists of group members asking the “sharer” open-ended questions.
The Value of Open-Ended Questions vs. Close-Ended Questions
Close-ended questions usually require a one-word response, such as Yes/No. Whereas, open-ended questions require more than a one-word response, and thereby promote conversation and create an opportunity for connection.
An example of a close-ended question is, “Do you have a good relationship with your boss?” This type of question elicits a Yes/No response. This same question could be re-worded to become open-ended, “What is your relationship like with your boss?” There are so many ways one could respond to this open-ended question. The person might share how they sometimes like their boss under certain situations, but maybe dislike some of their leadership qualities.
Open-ended questions elicit a more thoughtful and detailed response than close-ended questions. Open-ended questions allow room for the complexities of the situation to be expressed. Suddenly the person is speaking in sentences, not in one-word responses. Stories about their boss might even emerge.
Close-ended questions, on the other hand, do not encourage in-depth discussions. They keep conversations at a superficial level. In fact, they tend to cut a conversation short.
If you ask enough close-ended questions in a row, it may feel tedious and boring to the other person. For instance, if you ask, “Do you like your boss?”, the person might respond “Yeah”. Then you ask, “Do you like your co-workers?”, the person might respond, “They’re ok”. Next you ask, “Do you like your projects?”, and the person might say, “Yes”. As you can imagine, this style of questioning might feel off-putting for the person because it doesn’t feel like you really want to understand their work situation. What is important and meaningful to them about work is not really expressed.
During the Exploration phase, the autistic group members are honing their listening skills and their ability to tune into how the problem is impacting the sharer’s emotions, thoughts, and sense of identity. Group members start to cue into the importance of understanding the sharer’s emotions rather than getting caught up in facts and details.
(3) Supportive Feedback
In this phase, the group members take turns providing feedback, and then the “sharer” goes last. There is an order in which feedback is provided by each group member: (a) validation, (b) empathy, (c) say 2 positive things about the sharer, and (d) (optional) offer a suggestion.
- Emotionally Validate
Each group member first validates the “sharers” emotions. What do I mean by validate? Well the group member validates by expressing their understanding of the person’s emotional experience, without judging or criticizing their emotions. For instance, a group member might share, “I can see how stressfulthe situation was with your boss, and that you might even feel betrayedby her.”
The group member next expresses empathy. They try to understand the “sharer” by putting themselves in their shoes or try to relate by recalling a similar personal experience. This can trigger body sensations that might be similar to what the “sharer” felt in the situation. For instance, the group member might express empathy by saying, “Something similar happened to me a couple of years ago with my boss. Just thinking about your situation made me feel knots in my stomach. I know this is a hard situation to be in!”
- Acknowledge Strengths
Next the group member relates two positives or strengths they noticed in the person. For instance, “I noticed how even though it was a stressful situation with your boss, you kept your cool in your meeting with her”
If the group member has insights to share or a helpful suggestion, they offer to the “sharer”. However, they ask permissionto share their suggestions. Asking permission is critical because it reduces the likelihood you come off pushy or disrespectful. People are always more receptive to listening to someone when they feel respected by the person.
Once all the group members have provided their supportive feedback, then it’s the “sharers” turn to go. The sharer describes their inner experience during the peer consultation. This includes feelings, body sensations, or thoughts that came up for them. Oftentimes the sharer will have had a profound experience of feeling like the group members deeply understand them, and will share how they appreciate this. Next, they discuss any new insights they have into the situation or strategies they could use to solve the issue.
Benefits of Peer Consultation
The peer consultation process enables the “sharer” to gain greater insights into the problem by looking at it from different perspectives, developing a clearer path in how to handle it, and gaining emotional support.
They experience first-hand how being heard and validated is deeply moving and connecting. I often hear group members say that they were surprised by how being understood by the group gave them a sense of relief, reduced their feelings of isolation, and empowered them.
Through the peer consultation model, the autistic group members learn that listening and validating someone’s feelings are fundamentally more valuable than offering a solution.
Listening provides the person the space to explore the issue, release some pent-up emotions around it, and gain the confidence to move forward toward solving the problem for themselves.
Many autistic people I have worked with have told me that when someone in their life had shared about a problem or their feelings, they felt pressure to fix the person’s problem or they avoided the person because they didn’t know how to handle emotions or didn’t have experience with the issue.
Through the peer consultation process, group members realize the value of listening and empathizing, and so they feel less pressure to fix the person’s problems or provide the “right answer”. This enables them to engage in conversations and better tolerate emotions that come up during conversations.
Importantly, the peer consultation model builds social communication skills that help neurodiverse adults connect more deeply with others. Ultimately, this helps autistic adults achieve their goals of developing and maintaining close friendships and intimate relationships, and communicating more effectively with co-workers and mangers.